On the evening of 29th January 1918 three huge Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI Riesenflugzeug “Giant” bombers of the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Air Service) took off from their base in Ghent, Belgium to attack London. The first plane ran into heavy anti-aircraft fire over Billericay and turned for home. It is not known where it dropped its bombs. The second ‘Giant’ was attacked by a night fighter over Tottenham in north London. It too decided to return home offloading its bombs near Wanstead. The third aircraft was also attacked near Hertford by a B.E 12 fighter flown by Capt. A Dennis of RFC 37 Squadron based at Goldhanger in Essex. This attack was unsuccessful and undamaged the ‘Giant’ turned south towards Brentford. Following the Thames towards its target the ‘Giant’ dropped its bombs. The first stick fell on the Old Deer Park, Richmond. The others landed in Brentford, Kew Bridge Road and Chiswick. That night 10 people were killed and the same number injured. According to reports there was little material damage.
The Zeppelin-Staaken Riesenflugzeug “Giant” bomber was a massive four engined tractor/pusher biplane with an enclosed cabin and a crew of seven. It was armed with 4 to 6 machine guns and able to carry a 2000 kg. bomb load. The ‘Giant’ certainly deserved its name. With a wing span of 42 metres (138 feet) it was larger than the Avro Lancaster bomber of World War 2 and its tail plane was about the same size as a Sopwith Pup. No “Giants” were ever lost to British fighters or anti-aircraft guns. The Germans hoped to cause widespread panic with the “Giant” attacks but this didn’t happen. The raids did however tie down a large number of aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and crews that might otherwise have served on the Western Front. The need for a coordinated air defence system was one of the major reasons for the formation of the RAF in April of 1918.
Because of strict wartime censorship there is very little in the ‘Richmond and Twickenham Times’ about the Tuesday raid or one the night before…
“Monday night’s raid has been ascribed by some to a benevolent desire on the part of “our German friends” to do a little something to distract our minds from our food troubles. It worked. On Tuesday morning we were asking each other, not “Have you got the meat?” but “What did you think of the raid?”
The big story in the ‘Rich and Twick’ that week was the dense fog that had enveloped the town on Wednesday and Thursday. The paper reported how Mrs. Stevens, a cook at the Pagoda Restaurant, had lost her way in the gloom and fallen into the Thames by Richmond Bridge.
The ‘Richmond Herald’ was much more open about the week’s events even though it acknowledged the restrictions of censorship…
“As regards the air raids, it is not permissible to say much in view of the restrictions imposed by the Censor, but I shall be giving away no secrets to the enemy if I say that the behaviour of the residents of Richmond and the districts adjunct was, on the whole, quite admirable. On both Monday and Tuesday evenings large crowds took shelter at Richmond Town Hall outside of which there is now posted up a notice to the effect the persons who seek refuge in the basement do so at their own risk.”
Certainly the Herald felt relaxed enough to publish an official communiqué from Field Marshal Sir John French, Commanding-in-Chief Home Forces about the “Giant” Raid on Tuesday night…
Wednesday , 11.15am
A number of attacks were delivered against London by hostile aircraft last night between 10.00pm and 12.30am but in no case did the raiders penetrate into the capital. The first enemy machines crossed the Isle of Thanet at 9.30pm and proceeded up the Thames Estuary towards London, but were all turned back by gunfire…
Meanwhile a single aeroplane which crossed the Essex coast at 10.30pm, passed round the north and west of London, and dropped some bombs on the south west outskirts. A few casualties occurred. (The Old Deer Park/Brentford ‘Giant.’) At the same time another enemy machine dropped bombs in the north-eastern outskirts without causing any casualties or damage. (The Tottenham/Wanstead ‘Giant’?)
A number of our aeroplanes went up, and several engagements with enemy machines are reported. All our pilots returned safely.
The newspaper summed up the week in its usual cheery style…
What a Week!
Oldest inhabitants will be hard put to it to cull up from the recesses of their memory a week so full of events as that just closing. In common with the rest of the metropolitan area local residents heard something of the noise connected with the enemy raids on Monday and Tuesday nights and nobody was exactly sorry to see the fog on Wednesday morning….
Apart from Mrs Stevens, the cook, of course. She had just fallen into the Thames.
Diners at the Pagoda would have been pleased to learn that Mrs Stevens was eventually rescued…
To her consternation she found herself in the river, the water being nearly up to her neck. Her cries for help were heard by Colour Sergeant O’Connor, of the South African Military Hospital, Richmond Park. He immediately shouted out, “Where are you?” and having ascertained that the woman had walked into the river, he hastened to the river bank and at once dived into the water…Mrs Stevens later remarked, “I shall be grateful all my life to Sergeant O’Connor. If it had not been for his prompt assistance and bravery I should undoubtedly have perished. He walked away without waiting to be thanked.”
RICHMOND AND TWICKENHAM TIMES — 2nd February 1918
— from Martyn Day